"I cannot pretend to describe the horror of the scene," Adjutant John Waller, a British soldier, would write of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He nevertheless tries. Inside the fortifications, as the British overwhelmed the provincial forces, "'twas streaming with blood and strewed with dead and dying men, the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others. … We tumbled over the dead to get at the living."
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This telling quote appears in Nathaniel Philbrick's new history, "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution," along with dozens of other firsthand accounts of the battle and precipitating events. Philbrick (the author of "Mayflower," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and "In the Heart of the Sea," winner of the National Book Award) has a flair for using primary sources to create scenes that sweep readers into the thick of history.
There are places that we may resist going. Not every reader — not even those interested in how Colonial America slid into armed conflict against Britain — will appreciate such an intimate immersion in the muck of the battlefield. For those who do, "Bunker Hill" is a tour de force, creating as vivid a picture as we are likely to get of the first engagements of the American Revolution, including the chaotic skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.
For those bored by military strategy and misfires — and repelled by the sanguinary nature of hand-to-hand combat — "Bunker Hill" has more limited appeal. This is not a book that dwells deeply on the philosophical underpinnings of the revolution. Neither does it offer full-scale portraits of the nation's founders.
But Philbrick is a gifted researcher and storyteller, and "Bunker Hill" is more than a military history. Philbrick provides fresh insights into characters both familiar (George Washington, elegant on a horse, but saved from early blunders by his staff) and less so (Joseph Warren, a heroic political and military leader who may have had a checkered private life). He also offers a relatively sympathetic look at the British general Thomas Gage, who served unhappily as royal governor of Massachusetts during the run-up to war.
Philbrick's focus is on 1770s Boston, where resentments against British imperial rule and tax policies were coming to a boil. This was a city, "known for its love of liberty, its piety, and its prostitutes," that would eventually be occupied by royalist forces and besieged by the colonial army.
The famous battle on June 17, 1775 — most of which actually took place on and around the much-smaller Breed's Hill — is the book's centerpiece. But as he builds to that climactic encounter, Philbrick conveys the messiness of pre-Revolutionary politics and the fallibility of the principal players.
Put aside the celebratory simplicities of old high-school textbooks and contemporary Fourth of July fireworks. As Philbrick suggests, the journey toward the break with Britain, not formalized until the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, was never a straightforward march. It was alternately a reluctant dawdle, a circuitous hike along unfamiliar terrain and a pell-mell rush toward disaster.
Colonial loyalties were often shifting or divided. "In truth," Philbrick writes, "the patriots were no different from any group of people. All of them were flawed, and all of them had something to hide." One egregious example was Benjamin Church. He was "financially overextended and had at least one mistress — not to mention the fact that he was a spy for the British." Church, in the patriot inner circle, reported regularly to Gage on supposedly secret meetings.
Philbrick paints Warren as a far more admirable, indeed pivotal, figure. The doctor was no saint: He likely impregnated one woman shortly before becoming engaged to another, or so Philbrick believes, though the evidence is not conclusive. In other respects, though, Warren was a model patriot — a fine physician, a well-respected spokesman for the cause, and an officer intent on proving his mettle on the battlefield. So he did. When Warren was killed, Philbrick relates, British Gen. William Howe "shook his head in wonder and said that 'this victim was worth five hundred of their men.'"
How had it come to this? "The Revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new; they had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."
But with the arrival of George Washington to unite the ragtag militias, the publication of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" in January 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, the goal would shift to something more radical: the creation of a new nation. The misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill, a British victory but a decidedly Pyrrhic one, would prefigure how arduous and bloody that process would be.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
By Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, 398 pages, $32.95
Nathaniel Philbrick will appear at 7 p.m., May 17, at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville.Copyright © 2015, CT Now